CRITICAL MASS: Gone for 50 years — Brian Jones considered himself the leader of the Rolling Stones

Brian Jones (left) sits with Mick Jagger at an interview in 1965. (AP)

The Rolling Stones was Brian Jones' band.

You might dispute that. You might point out that little Keith Richards and Michael Jagger rode tricycles together until Jagger's family moved the five miles from Dartford to Wilmington, Kent in 1954. Seven years later they'd run into each other on the No. 2 platform at Dartford's railway while on their way to their respective schools in nearby London: Jagger -- now Mick -- was on his way to London School of Economics. Richards was on his way to Sidcup Art School.

Keef was carrying a guitar.

Mick was carrying two long-playing record albums: Chuck Berry's Rockin' at the Hops and The Best of Muddy Waters. Those records were unavailable in England at the time, Richards had only heard of Muddy Waters. He invited his former friend 'round for tea. A friendship was rekindled, a partnership reborn.

It makes a pretty myth, and it's all the more powerful for being more or less true. Even if it didn't happen precisely that way, all parties have consented to agree that it did.

Soon the lads were jamming, along with Dick Taylor, Alan Etherington and Bob Beckwith. This led to a short-lived quintet called the Blues Boy, who made a tape and sent it to Alexis Korner, who along with harmonica player Cyril Davies had a kind of musical co-op with rotating members bound by mutual love of rhythm and blues.

One of the players who performed regularly with Blues Incorporated was keyboard player Ian Stewart. Another was drummer Charlie Watts. Another was Brian Jones, a fey blond young man who was beginning to explore playing electric slide guitar in the style of Elmore James (Rod Stewart, Long John Baldry, Jimmy Page and John Mayall were others who shared the stage with Korner in those days).

Jagger, Richards and Taylor began jamming with Blues Incorporated; when Jones and Stewart left the band to form a new group specializing in Chicago blues they followed him. Jones advertised for players in Jazz Weekly. Jagger, Richards and Taylor answered the ad. After guitarist Geoff Bradford and vocalist Brian Knight declined Jones' offer to join the Rollin' Stones -- a name allegedly both chosen when Jones was asked by a journalist what the new band would be called and he glanced down at a Muddy Waters LP and noticed the track by that name -- Jagger and Richards came on board.

On July 12, 1962, The Rollin' Stones opened for Blues Incorporated at the Marquee Club in London. The first Rolling Stones rhythm section consisted of Taylor (who'd go on to found The Pretty Things in 1963) on bass and (probably) drummer Tony Chapman (who would go on to play with Peter Frampton and the Herd and introduce his old college friend Bill Wyman, who took over bassist duties in December 1962, to the boys) though it could have been Mick Avory (the Kinks) who played that first show. Charlie Watts became the band's drummer in 1963.

Jones always considered himself the leader of the band even if the others didn't. He booked the gigs and picked the set list. (He paid himself an extra five pounds a week for his trouble, something that didn't sit well with the rest of the band when they found out.) He played slide guitar. He was the pretty one.


Brian Jones was "angelic."

This was one of the adjectives they used for him. If you Google "Brian Jones" and "angelic" you get about 262,000 results. "Choirboy" is another adjective; it yields about 97,500 results. Combine his name with "pansexual" and you get only 156 results, but that's still not zero.

He was the original member of the 27 Club, though Rolling Stone magazine reported his age as 25 when he died. That was on July 3, 1969.

The Rolling Stones -- the "g" was restored shortly after that first gig -- was Jones' band, but it obviously didn't stay Jones' band.

In May 1963, the band hired 19-year-old Andrew Loog Oldham to be their manager. Though Oldham was younger than anyone in the band (too young to sign contracts, which necessitated his teaming up with older business partner Eric Easton) he had already worked with the Beatles and Bob Dylan and had some strong opinions about the band's direction.

His major insight was a marketing ploy: He sought to position the Stones as the anti-Beatles, the transgressive bad boys as opposed to the lovable mop-tops.

The Rolling Stones rehearse in 1964; group members are Brian Jones (from left), Bill Wyman, Charlie Watt, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. (AP)
The Rolling Stones rehearse in 1964; group members are Brian Jones (from left), Bill Wyman, Charlie Watt, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. (AP)

Oldham encouraged headlines like "Would you let your sister go out with a Rolling Stone?" that appeared in Melody Maker in March 1964. In that story Jones -- "one of the most popular among the girl fans ... he has the longest hair" -- pushes back against the image.

"Yeah, I know -- we're dirty and scruffy because of the hair, they reckon," Jones told writer Ray Coleman. "They call us tramps. It's getting back to army discipline -- you know, the barrack room thing. Short hair makes you clean, they say. That doesn't follow at all.

"How would girls, or women, who have long hair, like it if we said they were dirty?

"I don't see why we shouldn't grow our hair as long as we like. Why don't women get it cut then? Presumably because they prefer it long. So do we."

But Jagger -- "lead singer and harmonica player, does most of the talking" -- undercuts Jones' point immediately.

"Mind you," he says, "there are cleaner people in the world than us. I don't bathe every day."

Oldham also decided that having six members onstage was too many and that the burly (and slightly older) Ian Stewart didn't fit the band's image. So Oldham banned Stewart from playing live with the group and re-assigned him as the band's road manager.

Stewart, for some reason, went along with the demotion and continued to contribute keyboards on the band's sessions until his death in 1985. He was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a Rolling Stone, and in his 2010 autobiography Life Keith Richards wrote: "Ian Stewart. I'm still working for him. To me The Rolling Stones is his band.")

But most importantly, Oldham recognized that the future lay in the Stones' creating their own material, and he encouraged the songwriting aspirations of Jagger and Richards. He understood that to compete with the Beatles, the Stones had to be more than the rhythm and blues cover band Jones envisioned and the others had bought into. So he brought John Lennon and Paul McCartney into the studio, had the band record their composition "I Wanna Be Your Man" and pointed them toward the self-contained musical model.

Richards tells a famous story about Oldham locking them in a kitchen together and not letting them out until they had written a song. In his version, the first song they woke together was "As Tears Go By," which Oldham immediately appropriated for another client, Marianne Faithful.

Jagger says Richards' story is fanciful and that their first songs together weren't very memorable, though an early one -- "It Should Be You" -- was recorded by George Bean. Notably, Oldham shared writing credit on both those tracks. "Tell Me" was the band's first A-side single, released in July 1964.

Oldham also encouraged Richards to drop the final "s" from his surname, leading to years of confusion and hundreds of schoolyard arguments about whether it was "Keith Richard" or "Keith Richards."

None of this really suited Brian Jones.

Brian Jones: he was described as angelic, a choirboy. (AP)
Brian Jones: he was described as angelic, a choirboy. (AP)


Brian Jones' parents were solid upper-middle class members of the Cheltenham society, some 100 miles west of London. His father, Lewis, was an engineer who played piano; his mother taught it. Brian's musical aptitude manifested early. He was an actual choirboy. He was first chair clarinet. Obsessed by Charlie Parker, he prevailed upon his parents to buy him a saxophone. For his 17th birthday, they gave him an acoustic guitar. He was a good athlete, but his wind was cut by asthma. He was a good student ... for a while.

"Brian simply loathed school, the exams, the discipline, all that," Lewis Jones told Stanley Booth, the Stones' Boswell, for his 1984 book The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones. "At 18 he left school. He wouldn't consider going to university ... For a while he was keen on dentistry, but ... he decided to go to work in London for an ophthalmic firm ... Brian wanted to go to London. He wanted the London nightlife, the jazz clubs, all that. He loved jazz, Stan Kenton, that sort of thing."

By the time he'd ingratiated himself with Blues Incorporated, he saw it as his mission to play obscure roots music from America. He'd already fathered a couple of children with a couple of women when he decided to form his own band.

Jones recruited Ian Stewart because he played boogie-woogie piano like Albert Ammons. He liked the way Jagger sang. He took Richards because Jagger wouldn't come without his friend. For a while, in the summer of 1962, he moved in with Jagger and Richards in a cold-water flat in Edith Grove that became legendary for its filthy denizens and the blues records they played all hours of the day and night.

He named the band the Rollin' Stones, managed them and secured them a steady gig at the Crawdaddy Club in the Station Hotel in the tony London suburb of Richmond. That's where they first got noticed, where the teenagers started to come to see them.

That was where they were in 1963 when at least one poll had them as the No. 1 band in England, ahead of that bubblegum band from Liverpool, with matching suits and mops of hair, who adulterated their pop music with bluesy harmonica riffs.

But if Jones despised the Beatles -- and he probably did, because all of them probably did, at least in the beginning -- he also envied them. Jones saw himself as a bluesman, but he also had a thing for glamour and was the prototype of the scarves-swaddled androgynous pop star. He was the Stone with the deepest musical knowledge and the most virtuosity, but was also inventing the rock 'n' roll lifestyle, the sex-and-drugs ethos that made rock more cultural practice than pop music genre. Jones was pretty and doomed and unreliable, disappearing at times for weeks.

He frustrated his bandmates with his drugs (he was too much a junkie for Keith Richards).

He was no composer, though he apparently tried. He was no singer. No frontman.

But he was the blond apparition on the album covers, always in the foreground.

And he was essential to their early records. He dirtied up "I Wanna Be Your Man" with his Elmore James impression, which pushed the Stones' version past the Beatles' as the definite take on that slight ditty. (Which, contrary to legend, the Beatles recorded prior to Lennon and McCartney's visit to the Stones' session.) It stings on the covers "I'm a King Bee," "Little Red Rooster" and acoustically on Jagger/Richards' "No Expectations" from 1968's Beggars Banquet, perhaps his last great moment with the band.

It wasn't long after George Harrison introduced Jones to the sitar that he employed it on "Paint It Black" to stir up a whole new genre of minor-key psychedelia. He put it to more prosaic use on "Street Fighting Man."

Jones supplied textures and drive. That's him on the marimba in "Under My Thumb" "Out of Time;" he plays dulcimer and harpsichord on "Lady Jane." The classroom recorder on "Ruby Tuesday" is Jones, as is the saxophone and oboe on "Dandelion." On "She's a Rainbow" he plays mellotron.

He taught Jagger to play harmonica, and his student became more than serviceable. But it's Jones blowing on "Not Fade Away," "Prodigal Son" and "2120 South Michigan Avenue."

He was with the band for seven years, though they began pushing him out almost from the beginning. They had their reasons. Some of them were good ones. But he had the right to claim it was his band.

He was on his way out by 1967, though he officially left only a month before his death.

They've made movies about that death by misadventure -- that drowning at Cotchford Farm, Jones' country house, where A.A. Milne lived and died and wrote his stories about Christopher Robin and Winnie the Pooh. He'd been drinking, maybe he'd taken a sleeping pill. People will tell you he was murdered -- if you are interested in theories, there are plenty of theories.

The Rolling Stones became a different kind of band than what Jones envisioned. You might argue that they became a better one, tougher and leaner, stripped of the filigree Jones supplied. A certain delicacy was gone after the band began to rely more on Richards' growling guitar -- when he stripped his Telecaster down to five strings and tuned them to an open G chord, they found a whole new sound -- the sound some of us associate with vintage Stones.

Maybe that was the greatest rock 'n' roll ever produced.

But they were Brian's band first, and they could have been -- and for a while were -- very different and much stranger, more haunted, weird and vulnerable than the sleek machine they became. And that, 50 years later, still rolls crushingly on.


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Style on 06/30/2019